Beyoncé, Baraka, and the Battle For Radical Memory

“The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them.” –Fidel Castro, VII Congress of the C.C.P.

“You learn from the past, that’s why you teach history. Our rulers, the oppressors don’t want our young kids to know what came before them so that each time they have to start over from scratch. But there’s this rich history of struggle.” –Brian Becker

For people trying to radically remake society in a more just way, the task ahead is monumental. The task is easier when there is a pre-existing path that can be followed, and it’s more difficult when those seeking greater democracy have to chart an entirely new course. This means that for those seeking to maintain the system as it is, there’s an enormous incentive to sever the connections to past experiences that have proven successful.

This sort of dynamic will play out in any society with serious inequalities and premised on exploitation. It’s what’s under the surface of a recent political meme around the Green Party’s candidate for Vice President, Ajamu Baraka. The idea, articulated most explicitly by Disney/Univision’s joint media venture Fusion, is that Baraka is an obvious deviant because of his criticism of pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles. For those with only a cursory knowledge of the latest trends in both politics and mass culture, the connection might seem tenuous or absurd—why, after all, would love for a particular successful pop musician be a prerequisite for entry into the august ranks of Serious People?

It has to be noted from the outset that it wasn’t Baraka and Beyoncé’s crowd of left-wing critics who elevated the former Destiny’s Child to the ranks of anti-racist symbol, thus worthy of a politicized critique. Like anyone or anything put before a global audience, Knowles enjoys her prominence by the efforts of a multi-billion dollar media machine, the patronage of more powerful individuals, marketing savvy, and then her own talent and her fans—in that order. Along the way, Knowles was elevated to the status of a very important symbol, whose critics are reflexively self-marginalizing by having the sheer audacity to criticize the great individual. Among those who defend Beyoncé from a political standpoint, the pop-star’s symbolic power is that 1) her stature as a successful black female artist, and her output, make her an inspirational symbol for millions, especially black women who are in particular need of inspiration, as well as 2) the fact that more recently, Beyoncé’s use of 1960s-inflected Black Power imagery, and her association with figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, makes her a figure who will advance progressive causes and help weaken white supremacy in America. Those who defend the superstar as a anti-racist icon argue that the presence of Panther-inspired imagery drums up interest in the movement that can be leveraged for progressive end. Invoking righteous black rage, the logic goes, will contribute to the wider anti-racist struggle. In a performance at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé further cemented her association with opposition to white supremacy by enlisting the mothers of black Americans murdered by police in her performance.

In the face of this narrative, and the sheer volume of encomia praising Beyoncé as a transformative progressive figure, certain people have offered a counter-argument grounded in what could be called a more traditionally socialist view of history. Beyoncé’s critics who are not black can be easily derided as racists by her supporters, but Beyoncé’s loudest and most prominent leftist critics include black radicals with unimpeachable credentials like critical theorist bell hooks, activist and Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford, and the recently controversial Ajamu Baraka. These critics, many of whom participated in the liberation struggles of the 1960s, insist that Beyoncé not be read as a transformational symbol who will push change forward, but as a flesh-and-blood person with cognizable political principles who is beholden to the wealthy interests that have given her her platform. It should hopefully be obvious that only the latter interpretation is a substantively socialist one, grounded in the material conditions of our actual society; while the latter is a liberal capitalist one, based on a starry-eyed view of how change happens, a neoliberal faith in magic individuals, and a totally ahistoric perception of how the cultural industry doles out rewards and sanctions.

Ajamu Baraka’s crime against mainstream decency was to criticize a recent appearance by Knowles at the Super Bowl halftime show, during which Beyoncé and her backup dancers wore the black leather-and-beret attire of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously described as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” For Baraka this constituted a cynical instance of appropriation; “the cultural power of neoliberal capitalism to co-opt opposition, monetize it and provide some mindless entertainment” at work. Indeed, a basic knowledge of capitalism would make Baraka’s critique something like common sense—why would the capitalist media, through a multi-millionaire intermediary, celebrate the image of America’s most prominent Marxist-Leninist vanguard party during the most expensive televised spectacle of the year if not for nefarious and patently pro-capitalist purposes? Baraka himself claimed as much in the article linked-to by Fusion as proof of his well-deserved marginality, though they chose not to provide his actual critique: “In an era where the image is dominant and meaning fluid, what is still real, concrete and observable is the operation of power. Situated and controlled by an elite that bell hooks refers to as the White Male, capitalist Patriarchy, it’s a power that exercises with devastating efficiency its ability to shape consciousness through its control of the major means of communication and cultural production. It was those white men and their representatives that placed Beyoncé on that stage at the Super Bowl. It is incredibly naive to think that anything subversive or even remotely oppositional to the interests of the capitalist oligarchy would be allowed expression on a stage that it controlled.”

Baraka’s accusations of appropriation for capitalist ends has a long historical precedent. The phenomenon of wealthy interests exploiting revolutionary heroes and imagery by denaturing them of radical content and using them to repackage the status quo is nothing new. As early as 1917, Lenin opened his text The State and Revolution by warning of a phenomenon in which

“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

Since black Americans have historically been the US settler-colony’s most progressive constituency, tactics like this one have been deployed for years. It has recently been evident in the decision to replace the face of Indian-killer extraordinaire Andrew Jackson with that of Harriet Tubman, at a time when the wealth disparities between black and white Americans have reached levels unprecedented since the Jim Crow era. Going back a few years, it can be seen in what Professor Cornel West has called the “Santa Clausification of Dr. Martin Luther King,” whose image was appropriated in the service of presidential candidate Barack Obama, a lifetime servant of what Dr. King called the three interrelated evils of white supremacy, economic exploitation, and militarism.

Obama is only the latest and most-celebrated of a long legacy. For centuries there has been a black bourgeoisie who has advocated accommodation to white supremacy, in exchange for privileges for a few and the promise of incremental change in the future. Indeed, there is every reason to situate Beyoncé in the highest echelon of this black accommodationist bourgeoisie. If all someone knew was that Beyoncé was a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who is friends with the U.S. President, that would be enough information that to conclude that her politics are liberal, at best, with all the capitalist accommodation that label implies. Based on her entrepreneurship, one could also assume that she will be involved in the exploitation of working people—a fact confirmed by a recent story about her clothing line using sweatshop labor, making her less another compromised celebrity and more of an enemy of workers. However, it is in her association with the Black Lives Matter movement that Beyoncé’s service to her billionaire benefactors is most useful. Rather than being a uniquely powerful progressive symbol, Beyoncé Knowles is a living, breathing person, with actual politics. It is the substance of these politics that Fusion is trying to obscure by smearing Baraka and Beyoncé’s leftist detractors as patently insane figures.

True to form as a bourgeois capitalist, in her association with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Knowles has been most closely linked with prominent figurehead Deray McKesson. McKesson has been noteworthy for the speed with which he was elevated to his status as an avatar of the movement, his prolificacy with social media, his nebulous funding sources, and the degree to which he now acts as both speaker for and gatekeeper of the wider movement. McKesson joined the movement after a career working as a “ruthless administrator” with Teach For America (TFA), the school privatization outfit which has seen a boom during the Obama presidency. Among proponents of public programs, union advocates, and opponents of neoliberal privatization schemes, TFA embodies much of the current push to privatize everything in sight.

By virtue of his platform and association with a movement against police brutality, McKesson enjoys a leftish reputation. It’s important to note, then, what reactionary and power-serving ideas McKesson is remaking as progressive. When pushed, McKesson notes that BLM has nothing to do with “taking away capitalism.” He insists upon a fact-free revisionist view of American history, which oddly positions capitalism as a result of white supremacy, and not the other way around. In addition to his prolific tweeting about his favorite brands and extraordinarily disingenuous defenses of his TFA career, McKesson also frequently posits privatization as an ideal course of action. McKesson has, for instance, publicly mulled privatizing the U.S. Postal Service, both the largest public employer in the country and an organization that disproportionately employs non-white workers. Most germane to the current subject, McKesson has positively compared the spread of charter schools to the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. The Black Panther’s free breakfast program provided not only nutritious meals to people badly in need of sustenance, but an embryonic framework standing against the AmeriKKKAn state. By providing for the needs of the community as well as giving recipients a valuable radical political education, the BPP’s breakfast program was a cornerstone of a viable insurgency—for that reason, FBI Director Hoover called the program “the best and most influential activity going for the BPP.”

However, the free breakfast program was dangerous only because it was part of a larger cohesive socialist political agenda. Of late, there has been a campaign to “Santa Clausify” the BPP by praising their breakfast program while omitting the radical political context. While right-wing anti-communism presents the Panthers as violent anti-white terrorists, liberal anti-communism depicts them as nonthreatening community organizers, whose paramount concern was an anodyne interest in child welfare. It’s the latter image that Knowles and McKesson are exploiting, in order to push a concrete economic agenda. That agenda, when enumerated publicly, is quite clear: to roll back what welfare and social programs remain, in order to privatize that which is still part of the public good. The solution to racism, according to these progressive-branded figures elevated by moneyed interests, is more capitalism.

Capitalism, which invented contemporary white supremacy in the 17th century, exploits racial categories in order to maintain the status quo. For that reason, accommodation to capitalism as tacitly put forth by Knowles is objectively white supremacist. What Knowles offers her corporate patrons is a vector for inverting reality, to remake capitalism into something anti-racist. The alchemical formula is simple: take symbols of black resistance, remove the radical political content political, drape oneself in them and then sell privatization (while getting rich in the process). McKesson offers the most overt and concise version with his comparison of the BPP’s social programs to school privatization. This is particularly necessary because as capitalism’s current crisis continues, the increasing use of naked force will require more subtle ideological coercion in order to augment the police state.

Again, the phenomenon of using elite-friendly progressives against more threatening radicals, while remaking compliance as resistance, is nothing new. The same tactics were employed during the last period of great radical political turmoil. To use just one example from that period, though there are countless others that followed the same course, James Forman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote: “After the call for Black Power had become popular in the United States and other countries, McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor under the late President John F. Kennedy, called a meeting at the Ford Foundation in New York City of twenty or more Black leaders. Bundy announced to the assembled Black leaders that a decision had been made to destroy the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and to save the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This decision was based on an assessment that it was possible to wean CORE away from the concept of Black Power through massive infusion of money for its operation. In the case of the SNCC, however, the assessment was that it was too late to save it; it had to be destroyed.” In Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen explains why: “CORE’s militant rhetoric but ambiguous and reformist definition of black power as simply black control of black communities appealed to Foundation officials who were seeking just those qualities in a black organization which hopefully could tame the ghettos. From the Foundation’s point of view, old-style moderate leaders no longer exercised any real control, while genuine black radicals were too dangerous. CORE [fit] the bill because its talk about black revolution was believed to appeal to discontented blacks, while its program of achieving black power through massive injections of governmental, business, and Foundation aid seemingly opened the way for continued corporate domination of black communities by means of a new black elite.”

Today, activists trying to undo forms of exploitation including white supremacy and the police brutality that sustains it might look to the past for guidance. In recent memory, the most prominent sustained challenge to this bourgeois power was a proletarian movement, often called the Black Freedom struggle, elements of which saw their struggle as interlinked with anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the globe. These working class movements, many like the Black Panthers explicitly Communist, rejected the promise of more purely symbolic changes offered by the bourgeoisie: as Malcolm X said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Instead, these movements advocated nothing less than total liberation, which would necessarily mean a radical restructuring of society and a transfer of its productive forces from a privileged few to the exploited many. People today have the benefit of sharing the earth with people who actually participated in these movements—though the latter’s numbers are decreasing. Panthers like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, and Bruce Dixon; or activists like Glen Ford and Ajamu Baraka remain relatively uncompromised—and uncompromising—public figures.

Of course, a population with the least to lose animated by radical socialist politics is the ruling class’s worst nightmare. Thus, one of the tasks faced by those who seek the status quo is severing the connection between activists today and radicals who cut their teeth in the liberation struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. To that end, the line taken up by Beyoncé’s defenders is one of elder-bashing. Beyoncé’s left-wing critics who can’t be smeared as white supremacists thus become the victims of derangement. In this vein, Fusion treats Ajamu Baraka as self-evidently abnormal, while even people who claim anti-capitalist politics deride bell hooks as a hypocrite out-of-touch with contemporary times and insufficiently appreciative of a certain celebrity’s powerful symbolism. Cornel West faced the same criticisms when he responded to an attack on his reputation by MSNBC celebrity Melissa Harris-Perry. As with Baraka and hooks, what separated Professor West from his corporate-backed, Democratic Party-linked critics like Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson was that West insisted on a traditionally socialist, class-based vision of justice.

Their real crime is insisting that radicalism should be genuinely radical, and more importantly, for knowing the difference between real radical change and mere gestures. Their crime is demanding that justice involve actual substantive change for the many—not merely more consent, remade as something transgressive by a lot of slick marketing and smoke-and-mirrors. In order to fight this change, the forces of the status quo present history as a narrative of relatively straightforward progress. Obama himself offered such a vision in his January 2009 Presidential Inaugural Youth Ball, when he shared the liberal arc-bending-towards-justice narrative as one in which “a new generation inspired previous generations, and that’s how change happens in America.” Since some people know better, and they know from firsthand experience, past generations of activists get derided as unfortunate relics. This derision can be seen in everything from the current spate of celebrities appropriating black radicalism to the narrative around the Brexit. Twitter user “Crypto Cuttlefish” points out that in the 1960, contemporary radicals could have spoken to workers who had engaged in actual shooting wars with Federal troops and hired company thugs in the 1930s; likely CIA asset Timothy Leary summarized this decade to his audience as “the boring ‘30s.”

Baraka opens his critique of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance by introducing himself as “a culturally alienated, old, disconnected 1960s and ‘70s radical trying to live and struggle for revolutionary change in a world that might have passed me by.” Baraka understands the fault lines, the actors on either side, and what is at stake. Fusion closes their hatchet-job on Baraka with a smug “Now this is the type of candidate the people can get behind.” Fusion is trying to erect a cordon sanitaire around people like Baraka because the corporate interests Fusion represents know the danger that uncompromised radicals represent. That is why the smear campaign against Baraka exist: to sever the connection between black resistance and Communism, which offers humankind’s only hope. In an interview with Jared Ball of iMixWhatiLike!, Black Panther Dhoruba Bin-Wahad points out that today’s movements “are disconnected from the radical tradition, from radical history. So because they’re disconnected from it, they are condemned to repeating the same mistakes that were made, first of all, and second of all, they’re not availing themselves of radical tools of resistance. They’re being hamstrung by their own limited politics” (Part 2, 26:55.0). Bin-Wahad points out that the quickest track to building an effective resistance is to reconnect to the writings of black radicals like Assata Shakur and Franz Fanon, who provide alternatives to what Bruce Dixon calls the black misleadership class. According to Bin-Wahad, the movement is hobbled because future leaders “haven’t been empowered yet, because they’re separated from the radicals traditions” of black Communists like Assata Shakur, Robert Williams of the Revolutionary Action Movement, or the Black Panther Party. “And once they lock into that, and they connect it to their lives [and] their own living experiences, then you got to look out.

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1 Response to Beyoncé, Baraka, and the Battle For Radical Memory

  1. Pingback: The Celebrity Left is Still the Enemy | Stupidity Tries

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